A new edition of the Thrifty Food Plan adds a significant increase to SNAP benefits for low-income families. This is the first time in decades that the focus was not on maintaining costs but on creating a healthy, practical diet with food choices that are more realistic of a family’s needs and reflect the diverse U.S. population.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released a re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, used to calculate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Starting in October, the average SNAP benefit will increase by 25%.
SNAP is the largest U.S. food assistance program that provides monthly benefits to low-income households to support their food budget. Families need to have access to nutritious, affordable foods to maintain good health and reduce risk of disease. There are strong ties between food insecurity and poor health outcomes. Due to health and social inequities, certain racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and have higher rates of diet-related conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer full-service supermarkets than predominantly white and non-Hispanic neighborhoods, which can be one of the barriers to accessing healthy foods. The pandemic resulted in elevated levels of food insecurity and exacerbated inequities, with estimates of 1 in 5 Black individuals experiencing food insecurity in 2020.
The Thrifty Food Plan outlines nutrient-dense foods and beverages, their amounts, and associated costs that can be purchased on a limited budget to support a healthy diet through nutritious meals and snacks at home. The report was last updated in 2006, and the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 now requires the USDA to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan every five years. This plan is used to inform the SNAP benefits provided to low-income families.
A study of barriers for SNAP recipients found price to be the largest barrier to a healthy diet, with 60 percent citing affordability. Using food prices inflated to June 2021, the cost of weekly amounts of foods and beverages that support a healthy diet for a typical family of four is now $835.57 per month, which is a 21 percent increase since the last evaluation. 30 percent of survey participants cited lack of time as another barrier that prevents them from preparing healthy meals. The new Thrifty Food Plan takes into account convenience and ease of preparation, such as precut vegetables or canned beans.
This version of the Thrifty Food Plan is significant as it is the first time in decades that maintaining costs was not a driving factor. The USDA focused on assessing foods and beverages that create a healthy, practical diet, and then determined their cost. One of the goals was ensuring a variety of food choices that are more realistic of a family’s needs and reflect the purchasing and consumption patterns of the diverse U.S. population. The plan allows individuals to follow their own dietary preferences and cultural norms while they select nutrient-dense foods and beverages, such as lower cost chicken breast alongside soy milk. This plan is more representative and realistic than previous editions and may result in more families making healthy food choices, as well as shine a more positive light on the SNAP program.
This reevaluation is an important step towards supporting food security and nutrition security. Studies have shown that SNAP improves food security and the latest increase in benefits should have a positive impact affecting even more families in need.